Interview: Joel Christian Gill, Author Of 'Strange Fruit' And 'Tales Of The Talented Tenth' : Code Switch Have you heard of Bass Reeves? Richard Potter? Spottswood Rice? "Box" Brown? If not, illustrator-historian Joel Christian Gill says, you're missing out on some of the best stories in American history.
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'Strange Fruit' Shares Uncelebrated, Quintessentially American Stories

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'Strange Fruit' Shares Uncelebrated, Quintessentially American Stories

'Strange Fruit' Shares Uncelebrated, Quintessentially American Stories

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America has celebrated black history this month every year since 1976, which makes it all the more remarkable that there are so many amazing African-American heroes who remain virtually unknown. Joel Christian Gill has dedicated himself to telling these stories in two series of graphic novels. "Strange Fruit" collects shorter stories in each volume and "Tales Of The Talented Tenth" is for individuals whose stories require an entire book. So far, Gill has had no trouble filling pages with unforgettable characters who were somehow forgotten.

JOEL CHRISTIAN GILL: The first American stage magician was a black man from New Hampshire named Richard Potter. Spottswood Rice was a slave who escaped and then wrote two letters. The story of Box Brown, who was a slave who nailed himself in a box from Virginia to Philadelphia.

RATH: The first volume of "The Talented Tenth" tells the story of a fellow named Bass Reeves.

GILL: Bass Reeves was a slave. And his master taught him how to shoot because his master didn't want to teach him to read, but he would teach him to shoot, which is counterproductive in my opinion. But he traveled with him to the Civil War, where he was a colonel. And they got into an argument over a card game. And Bass beat his master up and ran to Indian Territory at the time. And he lived there for a number of years with a number of different tribes, learning the languages, learning the customs. And then he joined a group of irregulars in the Union Army, and he fought in the Union Army.

That would've been an amazing thing in and of itself if his life had stopped there. But he was so good in the Native American territories, that Judge Parker, who was called the Lynching Judge - the judge was like, well, why don't we deputize some black marshals? Because the Native Americans didn't trust the white men because they looked like the outlaws. They were all white. And so they deputized Bass Reeves, who had been working as a scout. And Bass became the most successful U.S. Marshal in American history. He caught over 4,000 criminals. And he couldn't read or write, so he would memorize the warrants.

And Bass would go out there. He had a Native American sidekick. And, I mean, he would dress as a preacher. He would dress as a vagabond, you know, as a drunk, as women. He would do all of these different things and do this real detective work. And so a lot of historians, including myself, believe that he was the original inspiration for the Lone Ranger.

RATH: Now, these are stories given, you know, when they're taken place and where they're taking place, the n-word comes up a lot. And you've come up with an interesting way of dealing with the n-word. Can you talk about that device and how you came up with it?

GILL: So for the n-word, what I typically do is draw a racist caricature of a black person. And if you're not familiar with that, it's sort of this wide-eyed, big-lipped, wide-nosed, really, really dark, you know, caricature that you would find in like tobacco ads or in magazine ads and cartoons. There were a lot of cartoons. Even, you know, 1940s and '50s cartoons with that character in them. And what I was trying to do with that is to separate that actual image from the people that they're describing in the story.

So even while they're saying that, you can see that it doesn't look anything like the people that they're talking about. So when I started thinking about how to approach that, it was a no-brainer. Like, I had to use this racist caricature of a black person, because it was embedded with the history of blackface and subjugation and oppression. I mean, comics is, like, really good for things of that nature, giving you visual information that, you know, in a second you look at that image.

But for the most part, all of the history is something that you've created in your mind. I don't have to write out the entire history of that. You look at that one image and you get what that means. And I think that was what I was trying to do. And I also do it for Native Americans too, so I put that symbol in there where they're talking about Native Americans. One of the symbols of that is really close to the football team.

RATH: Now, we just happen to be talking in February, which is, of course, Black History Month. But I think I have a sense of how you feel about Black History Month, if only from your fondness for this hashtag - #28daysarenotenough.

GILL: And I founded that hashtag. I was actually giving an interview with - over the summer. And my sister Tiffany was tweeting me. And I said something to the effect of these were everybody's stories. They shouldn't be - we should talk about them 365 days a year. And my sister said I'm with you, because 28 days are not enough. And I thought that's going to be my rallying cry. And so I started tweeting African-American history and black history, and people are picking it up other than me, which is fantastic. It's like - you know, it's kind of like sending a bird out to the world and watching it fly.

Looking at Twitter and seeing somebody who I don't know, who doesn't follow me, posting a story of - I don't know, Stagecoach Mary Fields, who was this, you know, woman who drove a stagecoach and was basically, like, you know, a tough guy in the old West. And they'd hashtag it #28daysarenotenough. It's really just amazing because these stories are quintessentially American stories, and I can't say that enough. I don't - it's not that I dislike Black History Month. I just don't think Black History Month is enough. And I think that when we say Black History Month, we have a tendency to go through a greatest hits of all of the black historical figures - Dr. King, Malcolm X, George Washington Carver, Thurgood Marshall, President Obama. We talk about these people, and by the time we get through with them, we don't have a conversation about the people who, in the face of American racism, pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and made a way for themselves.

Some man or woman in Louisiana deciding that the only way I'm going to be able to get up in the morning and go to do what I need to do is to run - and to run thousands of miles barefooted through snow and ice with only a river and stars and spirituals to guide me. Like, that's an American idea, like, I am going to do anything I possibly can for freedom. But we relegate that to only 28 days. And I think that's just not enough to talk about it.

RATH: That's Joel Christian Gill. His books are called "Strange Fruit" and "Tales Of The Talented Tenth." There are more volumes that will be on the way. Joel, thank you so much. This was a real pleasure.

GILL: Thanks for having me. I enjoyed talking to you.

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